Lean in or lie down? Balancing jobs, side projects, and hobbies

Nicole Zhu
Jun 18 · 15 min read

This is a lightly-edited transcript of a keynote talk I gave at Flawless Hacks in New York in April 2019.

Inspiration for this talk title came from Ali Wong’s stand-up special Baby Cobra

When I was in college and was starting to apply for internships and jobs, it became apparent very quickly that having a resume and LinkedIn wasn’t enough. I had to start a blog, then actually blog on Medium, build a portfolio, go to hackathons and do extra curricular activities to work on projects to fill that portfolio, start building my personal “brand” on Twitter by sharing dumb memes but also show how I’m doing all this self-improvement in my personal life, etc.

I’ve always operated at 110%. My whole life. Even for things I don’t particularly like doing, I can’t half-ass things (or as Ron Swanson says, I can only whole-ass them). When I first started getting into tech and studying computer science, the messaging around productivity, the quantified self, and self-optimizing were all super appealing. It was the perfect thing for an overachiever and spreadsheet nerd like me.

Let me give you an idea of what operating at 110% looks like for me. Outside of my day job, I have been reading 52 books in 52 weeks for the last five years. I co-host a podcast with my sister called Sweet and Sour about Asian American identity, culture, work, and lifestyle. I’ve done two 100 Day Projects around writing (projects where you choose something creative to do every day for 100 days). I’ve written and published a few personal essays. This is all on top of the actual things I want/need to do as a human being, like trying to spend time with my partner, keep in touch with friends and family, get enough sleep and exercise, see my therapist, cook meals at home, and keep my apartment clean.

AND I AM TIRED.

Ever since reading Ann Friedman’s article in The Cut earlier this year called “Not Everything Is a Side Hustle,” I’ve been re-evaluating whether I’m falling into the trap of making everything a side project, if I interpret “free time” as “time to keep working on other things.” Spoiler alert: the answer is yes. “Even your free time is structured,” my therapist noted in one of our early sessions. (This was not a compliment.)

In an effort to stop structuring my free time and as my therapist says, “just play,” this past year I’ve been re/discovering hobbies, which sounds like a weird thing to say. But it’s been valuable for me to dial back on what I commit myself to, to evaluate and prioritize things besides being this amorphous concept of “productive,” and how to get back to doing things just for pure enjoyment. Because for a long time, I think I really lost my way.

Today, I’m going to talk about what separates a job from a side project from a hobby, and why it’s difficult to distinguish these activities, particularly in 2019 and particularly for us in the tech industry. We’ll also talk about ways to strike a balance in each of these areas without burning ourselves out in the process.

Before we can talk about balancing these things, let’s revisit what these actually are and why they’re important.

Overview of jobs vs. side projects vs. hobbies

I find it helpful to think about each of these things along these lines:

  • How much of my time does this take up? How much of my time am I willing to put into it?
  • What value do I get out of this? Is it money, financial stability, or healthcare? Perhaps I’m exploring a new career path, networking, learning a new skill, relaxation, etc.

A job is an occupation which proportionally takes up a significant amount of your time and has monetary compensation. Opportunities for progress and skill development are what make a job become a viable career. For example, dog walking is a job, whereas working in sales at Petco is a career. A side project or side hustle is something that you’re doing aside from your main job, and may or may not be connected to your overall career development or involve getting paid for the work. Usually you’re doing this because it benefits you and/or others, and is something you aren’t getting out of your current job. A hobby is an activity that you do for pure enjoyment. There’s no expectation of progress or compensation.

In an article called “Why Hobbies Make You Happy,” Patricia W. Linville, a professor in the psychology department at Duke University, outlines the idea of “self-complexity.” This is basically the idea of how we humans sort the “traits, roles, and other identity markers” that make up our sense of self. Linville found that the narrower a person’s conception of their “self” is, the more they can be prone to depression and anxiety. In this way, hobbies are great ways to help develop or amplify your “self-complexity.”

I want to be very clear that you do not have to have a side project, and all of these buckets can consist of super different things. For me, my job is working on content management systems and audience experiences for media brands. I really enjoy it, but I also like to work on more creative projects, so on the side I write and host a podcast. My hobbies, which I have rediscovered this year, are cooking (thanks to continuous rewatches of “The Great British Bake Off”) and hip-hop dance.

I am Selasi

So that’s all well and good, but the lines between jobs, side projects, and hobbies are getting increasingly blurred. And the harder it is to separate these things, the more it all ultimately becomes or feels like work. Why is this?

Why jobs, side projects, and hobbies are blurring together

One big part of this is simply our current economic reality — which is grim. We’ve got “the 2008 financial crisis, the decline of the middle class and the rise of the 1%, and the steady decay of unions and stable, full-time employment,” writes Anne Helen Petersen in her viral BuzzFeed piece on millennial burnout. From The Cut: “Half of millennials have a side gig because they can’t find a full-time job that will pay them a living wage, or because a side hustle is what’s required to break into their desired field.” The Huffington Post published a piece that puts this all more succinctly: “Millennials Are Screwed.”

This economic reality is compounded by two major inescapable factors in our society: social media and today’s intense work and productivity culture. Jenny Odell, an author and multidisciplinary artist who teaches at Stanford, posits that social media “robs us of attention” while this “cult of productivity” plants the idea and pressure in our mind that “surplus time we do have be used ‘productively’.” In a New York Times article called “Why Are Young People Pretending to Love Work?,” “in the new work culture, enduring or even merely liking one’s job is not enough.” We need to also love what we do — the whole WeWork “do what you love” ethos — and fuse our identities to that of our employers. In fact, “not only does one never stop hustling — one never exits a kind of work rapture.” So everything becomes an extension of your job, and things that were once separate from your job only exist to be in service of it.

The BuzzFeed millennial burnout essay says that “‘branding’ is a fitting word for this work because it underlines how our self is now a product. There is no “off the clock” and the rise of smartphones makes all of these activities so easy and pervasive that they’re almost an afterthought. The ease of documenting every part of your life and sharing it with others makes it normal to curate and “perform” some version of yourself for public consumption.

Alex Norris

It’s not just normal to perform and post your life for public consumption, but there are also now drawbacks if you don’t participate.

Odell gave a fantastic talk at Eyeo in 2017 called “how to do nothing” and just published a book of the same name, which highlights the dangers of “submit[ting] our leisure for numerical evaluation via likes on Facebook and Instagram.”

Time becomes an economic resource that we can no longer justify spending on “nothing.” It provides no return on investment; it is simply too expensive.

I think the cult of productivity and constructing a self on social media presents unique challenges for us working in the tech industry, especially if we’re members of one or more underrepresented groups. As April Wensel writes in a Medium post “Only You Can Prevent Tech Burnout,” “if we’re in an underrepresented group in tech, we may feel even more pressure to stay late just to prove that we really do deserve to be there.” I’m not going to lie, I definitely take on a lot of things both in and outside of work — mentoring, diversity work, writing articles, giving talks — in order to prove that I belong there.

And then there’s the double-edged sword of side projects, which can provide opportunities, help you network, connect, and collaborate with people, and demonstrate your expertise and interests. But as Terri Burns notes in her Model View Culture article on “Side Project Culture,” “the industry’s emphasis on [side projects] inherently disadvantages people who cannot regularly work on them.” While working on side projects can add to your experience and resume, it also puts people who are already underrepresented in tech at a disadvantage — for example people who have other full-time jobs they depend on, who are caretakers, who are older or have families to attend to, or who may have invisible illnesses. And “the hazy aspect of side projects is that they often fit in an unclear intersection of work and recreation.”

This hazy gray area where work and recreation become one and the same means that we’re also at higher risk for burnout.

Burnout

Burnout is essentially long-term, unresolved stress that typically involves things like emotional, physical, and cognitive exhaustion and fatigue. One of the most challenging things about burnout is that it doesn’t build up overnight. It’s a long, slow burn, and we keep pushing ourselves just a little bit farther because we’re already so deep in it we can’t really see the toll it’s taking on us physically, emotionally, or psychologically.

How to detect burnout

So how can we detect burnout before it reaches critical levels? I find it helpful to make it a habit to check in with myself.

Sometimes I’m Rahul
  • Is what I’m doing enjoyable?
  • Is it meaningful?
  • Is what I’m doing sustainable?
  • Am I gaining or losing momentum?
  • What would it take for it to be sustainable?

For side projects, maybe it’s getting paid for the work or finding people to help you. Maybe it’s finding a collaborator to keep your energy up. Maybe it’s hitting pause and taking a break. Or maybe, and this is something we don’t talk about enough, it’s winding something down or saying no to an opportunity.

There’s definitely a degree of privilege involved in being able to balance these things. Jia Tolentino wrote in The New Yorker that “many people still earn their livelihoods offline, but an online presence is often a requirement not only for jobs in the gig economy but in order to piece together a financial safety net. […] More and more of us cannot afford to step away.” And she notes how ironic it is that she can now afford to step away only because she’s accrued all this professional capital by putting her life online in the first place.

But where possible, regardless of whether you have that professional capital, I think it’s important to, at the very least, reflect on where you currently are and where you want to be.

I started to realize the hidden costs of trying to do “productive” things outside of work in the last year or so. Everything that outwardly was some project I could put on Instagram or Twitter also had its downsides. And I haven’t really talked about it until now because I’ve definitely been guilty of only showing the highlight reel of my life online. The 100 days I spent doing the 100 Day Project was when I was the most sleep-deprived because I was trying to keep up with this arbitrary goal I’d set for myself. I didn’t cook for myself or exercise much because I’d come straight home from work to keep working on articles or my podcast. I’d pass up seeing friends because of these other self-imposed deadlines and assignments. At one point I was so stressed with work and other commitments that I started to feel its physical effects: my eye started twitching, or lately, my hair has been falling out.

Sleep deprivation, sacrificing your health, and spending time away from people who care about you are not badges of honor, no matter how much messaging there is out there and within our industry that the “hustle” and the “grind” is worth it. As coders and technologists, we’re always thinking about trade-offs in our work. Whether that’s for performance or usability. And though I am trying not to see myself through the lens of work or my time as a resource, I am interested in how we think about trade-offs when it comes to these three categories of jobs, side projects, hobbies, and my secret FOURTH category, which is doing absolutely nothing.

This is the lie down portion of the talk.

What to do about burnout

So what can you do to “lie down” after you’ve spent so much time “leaning in”?

(1) Adjust your expectations
I remember seeing Ashley C. Ford give a talk and she said that disappointment lives in the gap between expectation and reality. And if you’re like me, disappointment also leads to guilt and shame (which are also not great feelings). This was kind of like a galaxy brain moment because instead of setting myself up to fail, I could adjust my expectations for myself and how I spend my time to minimize that feeling of always coming up short.

For so long, I rarely took breaks. My evenings and weekends were just as busy as my workdays. It wasn’t until I started going back to therapy that I realized how much of a toll this took on my wellbeing and adjusted my expectations to give myself more downtime.

Even Captain Holt makes time for fitness and fun

Now, I am more aware of how my commitments fluctuate with time, and how much downtime I need in between things. I spent a few concentrated weeks editing an essay and then didn’t touch it again for half a year. I spent a few months working actively on this podcast with my sister, but lately work has gotten in the way and we’re both too tired to do anything after the day is over except watch Brooklyn Nine-Nine, so we haven’t actually been publishing new episodes regularly.

And I don’t see that as a failure; I see it as reasonable.

(2) Have and preserve boundaries
I was actually really nervous and kind of mortified when I first decided to take a dance class because it felt so out of character for me. But it was really refreshing because the teacher doesn’t allow photography or videos in his class, so I wasn’t sharing anything on social media. It was a weird thing — like if you do an activity but it’s not on your Insta story, did you actually do it? But I think it helped me rediscover the boundaries of work vs. play and push back against this idea that you have to stick to some sort of singular narrative or personality. It’s about how you see yourself, what your priorities are, and where you want to be. Again, build that self-complexity.

And because I actually just really enjoy it and it’s good exercise, stress relief, and fun, I go two to three times a week, and it means I have to leave the office by a certain time to make the class. I try to protect my time around that.

(3) Minimize or remove stressors when possible
Some things may be beyond your control, such as a project deadline at work or a toxic work environment. But you can figure out ways to perhaps minimize the effects by doing less in other areas, having a strong emotional support system, and as I talked about earlier, setting boundaries.

But what if you’re like me and the worst stressor is…yourself? Something I’ve started to do lately is ask myself these questions:

  • What’s the worst thing that will happen if I don’t do [X thing]?
  • What’s the likelihood that the worst thing will actually happen?

These have helped ground me a lot because the worst thing I build up in my head is almost never the thing that happens. It helps minimize the anxiety and put things into perspective.

(4) Ask for help
It could be professional or medical help, help from your friends or family, or help from your company/team if possible. If you can take time off for recovery or rest, do it. I see a therapist and my company thankfully has a really great remote work culture, both of which I’m very fortunate to have and which help me a lot. In whatever form this takes, don’t suffer alone. Lean on the people in your life.

(5) Change contexts
This is where I think hobbies come in, because they’re things that you do to just relax and reorient yourself. Dance class has been the thing that gets me out of my comfort zone. Because I’m sitting at a desk all day, it’s a good context switch to then do something that’s totally active with zero electronics. But it’s different for everybody. My sister takes ice skating lessons and another one of my friends took up collaging.

(6) Do less and/or do nothing!
I’ve been thinking a lot about Jenny Odell’s idea of “doing nothing” because she is “pushing against this narrow idea of usefulness.” The things that are not “tangible, measurable, or nameable” are not useless, but are actually important “for maintenance, for care, for conviviality.” The idea of maintenance is one that I’m really interested in.

via sandorclegane

Let’s take the MTA as an example. The MTA has been criticized for mishandling its budget by allocating more spending on flashy projects like the extension of the Second Ave subway rather than upgrading its existing infrastructure, resulting in mass delays and generally poor service. Maintenance, literally and figuratively, is undervalued. We put so much emphasis on the next new thing over preserving or appreciating what we’ve already done. And this can lead to the actual diminishment of things over time if they’re not maintained. This is true for subways, and it’s true for ourselves.

Basically what I’m trying to say is: don’t treat yourself like the MTA treats the subways.

I’ve often put productivity on a pedestal, but not maintenance. So what if maintenance was just as, if not more important than productivity? What if taking care of yourself was as — or I’d argue more — important than creating things?

(7) Be kind to yourself!
You are not what you produce! Exercise compassion and gratitude. You are not lazy or falling behind or failing. It’s cliche but true that you are nothing without your health, and that at the end of your life you aren’t going to be looking back on all the pull requests you submitted or code you committed or tracking spreadsheets you filled out. I know I’m getting all existential and nihilistic but this all goes to say that your own wellness — in truly every facet — is ultimately what matters most.

Jobs, side projects, hobbies, and doing nothing all have a role to play. Even though there are all these things making it increasingly difficult to separate work from play, whether that’s the attention economy and social media or the gig economy and our current crumbling systems of full-time employment, it’s nevertheless important to be cognizant of how you think about spending your time and thereby the things you value.

Self-care is a practice, not a one-time thing. Explore new things, rediscover old hobbies, reconnect with people and foster your relationships. It’s about finding balance for you — of what feels like meaningful work, what sparks joy, what teaches you something new, and what feels restorative. And don’t forget the human aspect of all of this too. As Jia Tolentino writes, there are “parts of us that don’t serve an ulterior purpose but exist merely to exist.”

Prioritize maintenance.

Prioritize your health.

Prioritize people.

Remember that, as Ann Friedman has written, “personal pleasure is what makes a hobby a hobby” and that pursuing your goals should never take precedence over your wellbeing to the extent of burnout. Don’t put so much pressure on yourself that the things you enjoy working on become burdens.

Lean in or lie down — just remember your worth as a person first, and as an engineer, a student, or whatever multi-hyphenate discipline, second.

Nicole Zhu

Written by

engineer, writer, cohost @sweetandsourfm